May 6, 2014

Miami artist explores physical, spiritual realms

Ana Mendez is often labeled a performance artist, but she says her strength is in ‘creating mood.’

Everything is coming up roses for Miami-based artist Ana Mendez. Primarily known for her performances, Mendez recently opened a solo exhibition at Bas Fisher Invitational in downtown Miami and will be debuting a new performance work at the Miami Here & Now performance series.

While Mendez is a trained dancer and choreographer and often labeled a performance artist, she says her strength is in “creating mood.” Her works combine elements of dance, music, lighting and set design to create ephemeral, atmospheric installations that are wordless yet teeming with meaning. Her work often dwells on the rituals of native cultures and the relationship between the body and the spirit.

“I feel that my work in general is about creating sacred space and having shamanic experiences, whether it is for the performer or for the audience,” Mendez said.

Mendez’s star has been on the rise for several years with a number of commissions from the likes of the former Miami Art Museum and the de la Cruz Collection. But this year has inadvertently become her breakthrough year after these projects, which have been gestating for a while, all ended up coming to fruition in the same year.

The bulk of the work Mendez is showcasing in 2014 was inspired by her residency with the Artists in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE) program last year. During her month living in the Everglades as part of the program, she was fascinated by how removed tourists were from the natural habitats and began to dwell on how humans are no longer participants in nature but spectators to it.

Because of the timing of the various projects, she was able to create a thematic arc surrounding them. Her new works imagine a futuristic culture that has adapted to become more closely connected with nature and the spiritual realm.

Possibly the most distinctive of the works she is showing this year is Fortress, a stand-alone sculptural installation on display at Bas Fisher Invitational in downtown Miami. The piece is an igloo-like structure made out of tree branches and metallic materials. Upon entering the structure, you will find a mirrored floor covered with an animal pelt while recorded sounds of nature and ambient lighting help transport visitors to Mendez’s vision of the future.

The installation is extraordinarily important for the artist, as it is the first time the artist has created a standalone object. The need to create a physical work was partly out of necessity (as whatever work Mendez created needed to activate the space for two months) but also to create something that felt true to her vision.

“I wanted to create something I wanted to see. I wanted to create a fort or a compound where people come together to collaborate and not like in an artistic sense, but in all senses. The way we all collaborate every day but in a more sacred way, coming together to share.”

As a part of her exhibition at BFI, Mendez was commissioned to create a Weird Miami bus tour; in the past, the tours typically have the artist hosting exhibitions provided guided tours around the city with stops at places that inspire them. For her bus tour, the artist shuttled a group of art-lovers to a long-defunct zoo at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne. There she, along with two other performers, guided the spectators to various locations throughout the park while wearing futuristic, industrial outfits with long blonde wigs shielding their faces.

While typical Weird Miami bus tours have been primarily guided tours, Mendez’s was entirely performative. As her futuristic figures wandered Crandon Park, she stopped at several stations to perform ritual dances, build makeshift shelters and interact with the natural landscapes and man made structures throughout the site.

Naomi Fisher, a local artist who also helps run BFI, was impressed by the eagerness of the artist to push her craft into new directions.

“I loved how when we arrived at the zoo she was waiting for the bus like an apparition from the future. The participants instinctually followed her into the zoo and we were led throughout the gardens to experience each chapter in the performance. People started following, even cyclists put down their bikes and joined the performance like she was the Pied Piper, bringing the general public into deeper engagement with art.”

In connection with her showcase at BFI, Mendez will also be premiering Portal, a new performance work that will be debuting at Here & Now 2014, a yearly showcase of emerging performance and multi-media based artists from Miami.

The piece would be the second she has been commissioned to create for the festival. Her first Here & Now commission was inspired by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of artist Ana Mendieta, whose life was cut short after she fell from 34th floor of a New York City apartment building. Her work featured 10 performers, some female and some male, who acted out what Mendez believes Mendieta may have felt during her fall.

Although Mendez prefers to reveal as little as possible about her performances prior to their staging, she says that her new work Portal was inspired by shamanism, a practice that involves using rituals to go on metaphysical journeys to reach portals to the spiritual world.

While the BFI show reflects on a future where humans are closely connected with nature, Portal depicts an even more distant future where humans have obtained the ability to transcend the physical world and enter the spiritual realm.

While many artists would be daunted with the amount of work and pressure that it takes to create several major commissions in such a short time, Mendez has taken the challenge in stride.

“I feel a freedom right that I didn’t feel before and I feel like there’s a lot of support coming from everywhere for me to pursue different kinds of art and to explore.”

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